Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
They’ve been called ‘the vainest tribe in the world’ and, once a year, Chad’s Wodaabe nomads get dressed up and dance for hours in the stifling sun in an attempt to attract a mate. Photographer Tariq Zaidi pays them a visit.
Dawn breaks in the semi-desert Sahel region of landlocked Chad. Nearby, a woman is already shaking a calabash, churning the cow’s milk into yogurt for breakfast. Work begins early in the desert.
But today, the nomadic Wodaabe will not just tend to their cattle, or pack up their rudimentary shelters and start moving to new pastures. It’s 6am, and one herdsman is already applying his ochre-red foundation in anticipation of tonight’s festivities: It’s Gerewol time.
The nomadic Wodaabe tribe, made up of subgroups of the Fulani people who have migrated along this part of central Africa for centuries, graze their cattle through the Sahel desert from northern Cameroon to Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Crossing countries riven by drought, poverty and war, they shelter in the most basic of structures with few possessions and are totally dependent on their animals for survival.
And despite the harshness of their environment, it’s beauty that the Wodaabe prize above all else. That’s why, once a year, for the Gerewol festival, an annual courtship ritual-meets-beauty pageant, the men don elaborate costumes, daub their faces with make-up, and dance for hours in the heat in the hope of finding love.
Decades of conflict in Chad have kept the rich tribal traditions of the Wodaabe intact. In fact, they consider themselves the most beautiful people on earth and they have a nickname too: The hours the men spend on their clothes and make-up has led to the Wodaabe being called ‘the vainest tribe in the world’.
It’s an unlikely place to be obsessed with aesthetics. In drought-prone Chad, 4.3 million people—more than a third of the population—are food-insecure.
Unlike other tribes in this area who are sedentary and largely Islamized, the Wodaabe are nomads who believe in animism. They also worship physical beauty; not as superficial decoration but as an intrinsic part of their culture which must be glorified and paraded for the enjoyment of others.
It’s an unlikely place to be obsessed with aesthetics. In drought-prone Chad, 4.3 million people—more than a third of the population—are food insecure due to increasing desertification and land degradation.
Water is so scarce here that the Wodaabe spend months following the rains across Saharan Africa, covering huge distances in small family groups. But when the rainy season ends, they come together to celebrate beauty with Gerewol—a week-long courtship ceremony which turns Western notions of sexual politics upside down.
From first light, the young Wodaabe men will spend all day applying elaborate make-up, which they make from grinding chalk, stones and animal bones, to make themselves attractive to the opposite sex. They’ll use whatever they can find—red ochre from the ground to paint their faces orange, a paste made from chalk to emphasize the symmetry of their features, and charred egret bones or even battery acid to make black eyeliner and lipstick. I even hear that some paint their lips black with chemicals from batteries to emphasize their white teeth.
Some of the make-up is believed to have magical powers and the Wodaabe go to great lengths to secure it; for example, the orange face powder can only be found beside a special mountain near Jongooria in central Niger, and some clans of Wodaabe must undertake a 1,400-kilometer round-trip on foot to secure a supply.
The Wodaabe must be the only African culture which allows girls to take the lead in choosing their betrothed—even married Wodaabe women have the right to take a different man as a sexual partner.
Others will shave their hairline to elongate the forehead and practise the eye-rolling, teeth-baring aspect of the dance, which shows off the features Wodaabe women find desirable.
Once this is done, they will dress extravagantly in brightly-colored beads and feathers, often adorning their outfits with recycled plastic whistles, lighters and sunglasses. Before and during the the festivities, the men drink a tea made with fermented bark which is said to have a hallucinogenic effect, and enables them to dance for hours on end.
It’s a beauty contest unlike any other. In 50-degree-Celsius heat, they will perform a teeth-gnashing, eye-rolling dance in front of the women, in the hopes of being judged the most beautiful. Wodaabe women look for tallness, white eyes and teeth, a slim nose and a symmetrical face; the mens’ make-up, clothing and facial expressions accentuate these features. And because beauty and sexual attraction is all-consuming here, as a people they are incredibly liberated.
In fact, the Wodaabe must be the only African culture which allows girls to take the lead in choosing their betrothed—even married Wodaabe women have the right to take a different man as a sexual partner. While the focus of the Gerewol is very much on the men, women still take great pride in their appearance. Tattoos on the womens’ faces are from scarification at a young age and indicate a woman’s tribal affiliations, as well as her strength and valor.
The Wodaabe are some of the kindest and gentlest people I’ve ever met. Gerewol is an amazing spectacle and the fact they can create such an incredible show in the middle of the desert with next to nothing, is testament to their resourcefulness. The Gerewol festival is also a grueling test of endurance for the men, who dance for hours in stifling heat in the hopes of impressing a woman.
Whether their joy in taking pride in their appearance—and beauty—is a celebration of the toughness of the Wodaabes’ daily existence or, conversely, a distraction from it, is unclear. But their ability to make the most out of what’s available to them is evident.
But the Wodaabe are the last nomadic tribe in this area, and estimates suggest there could be less than 100,000 Wodaabe left. Decades of droughts have depleted their herds, and their traditional grazing routes are being cultivated into farmland, squeezing the Wodaabe onto smaller and more marginal areas.
Like the beauty which Gerewol celebrates, the Wodaabe’s ancient rituals, precious though they are, may also be short-lived.